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Innovation in America Reaches New Heights

If necessity is the mother of invention, the COVID-19 crisis is driving cooperative innovation by companies, government entities, and healthcare organizations.

Q2 2020
ASU’s Biodesign Institute, where work is under way to scale up testing for COVID, among other initiatives.
ASU’s Biodesign Institute, where work is under way to scale up testing for COVID, among other initiatives.
The concept of an “innovation center” is certainly not new. However, without much fanfare, over time, some operations have reinvented the traditional center model, changing how and where they operate, leaning upon new partners and resources, and switching out the types of clients or markets served.

Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 global pandemic, these centers now have additional herculean challenges sprung upon them in a world facing unprecedented levels of economic and social upheaval. How can innovation be supported in this “new normal” era so organizations cannot just survive, but thrive?

Let’s look at a few examples:

On the Cutting Edge of Innovation

Arizona’s vast tech and innovation resources create, test, and scale new technologies on a regular basis. From 2014 to 2018, employment in innovation and technology services increased 27 percent — a rate much higher than the national average. Over 82,680 sector workers are employed in more than 7,778 establishments, according to the Arizona Commerce Authority.

While incubators, accelerators, co-working spaces, angel investors, business plan competitions, and VC-pitching training all support a growing entrepreneurial community, so too do a legion of private and public organizations and educational entities; e.g., the 800-member Arizona Technology Council, the premier trade association for technology- and science-driven companies, and ASU (Arizona State University). ASU helps its students find methods to use technology creatively and offers them many unique research and funding opportunities.

For the fifth year in a row, last September, ASU was named the most innovative school in America by U.S. News and World Report. The magazine’s ranking, based on a peer survey, compared over 1,500 institutions. ASU President Michael Crow says the school received this honor due to the work of thousands of people tackling challenges in new ways positively impacting not just ASU, “but the state of Arizona and far beyond.”

With such accolades, it’s not surprising that in 2020 ASU researchers were tasked to find innovative solutions to the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, this March, ASU received a $2 million grant donation to fund its work in three areas: virus testing of “front-line” workers, assembling of virus test kits for healthcare providers, and 3D manufacturing of PPE. “ASU is in a unique position to scale up…to support round-the-clock testing and analyze hundreds of samples daily,” notes Joshua LaBaer, director of ASU’s Biodesign Institute.

This rapid shift was made possible by a $40 million investment in ASU made by the Department of Defense in 2009, when the school was lead contractor on a project developing a tool to help people in the event of a nuclear emergency. “We just swapped out the genes for radiation detection [in the tool] for the coronavirus ones to do the test,” adds LaBaer. “We have all the automation and robots in place…now.” Eventually the system will be able to run 1,000 samples a day, a feat greatly increasing Arizona’s local COVID-19 testing capabilities.

Other ASU pandemic-focused research efforts under way include development of a coronavirus vaccine, a simple blood test for seven strains of the virus, AI models to predict COVID-19’s impact on residents, heat treatment/UV light tools to rapidly sterilize PPE for reuse, and more.

A New Innovation Model for Middle-Sized Firms
The Georgia Centers of Innovation (COI) — a division of the Georgia Department of Economic Development — is the state’s leading resource for facilitating business innovation. COI advises Georgia companies on how to translate new ideas and technologies into commercially viable products and services via technical industry expertise, research collaborations, and business partnerships. Its staff of 15 works with all kinds of businesses representing diverse fields, and all services are free.

How can innovation be supported in this “new normal” era so organizations cannot just survive, but thrive? When asked what “innovation” looks like, Steve Justice, COI’s executive director, told Area Development that COI is very narrow in its focus of that definition. “Since we are economic developers, innovation is how we help a business develop new products, services and/or processes to help them better serve customers and allow them to grow their company. When you use that definition, a lot of folks think of innovation being like the iPhone. But innovation is all about the ways people use it. Tech is just a tool.”

In fact, innovation doesn’t have to be new — maybe just new to that company. And strange to many ears, not all solutions must be high tech either, as sometimes “low tech” is the best answer for a client’s issue.

Each year COI assists about 700 companies, with client “engagements” lasting a few minutes to up to 12 months. While each of COI’s five facilities focuses on one of five key industries — aerospace, energy technology, information technology, logistics, and manufacturing — it’s not unheard of to do projects for the same client as the organization’s needs and life cycle evolve over time.

COI’s efforts are facilitated through the state university system, which includes the Georgia Institute of Technology, the University of Georgia, and other prominent research partners. “We excel at connecting companies with those researchers,” says Justice. In turn, the ability to provide easy access to such a wide range of game-changing services has a huge impact on new, existing, or yet-to-be-developed products and processes for clients.

The ‘Next Impossible’ Is Now Possible, Locally
A few years after its founding, COI focused more on companies operating in the “middle” spectrum, between entrepreneurial entities growing in incubators on one end, and big corporations with big dollars on the other. The majority of these firms were 5 to 10 years old, with 50 to 100 employees. They were too large for incubator space, yet not big enough to operate their own innovation centers.

Recently COI morphed again, with its customer service reflecting newer national and global business trends. What prompted the change? “The realization that innovation can’t and doesn’t always exist in big cities,” David Nuckolls, COI’s associate director told Area Development. COI’s “Mothership” was (and still is) active in Atlanta’s Tech Square, home to 25 innovation centers plus a high density of startups, corporate innovators, and academic researchers. “But across the state, we were seeing so many different flavors of innovation, from fashion to film to healthcare,” Nuckolls recalls. “And from that, questions then arose of how we should address companies needing or wanting to drive innovation more locally.” That’s when COI realized it had to “create new environments,” explains Nuckolls, and no longer would it solely be a “big building” for clients to visit. Instead, adds Justice, “We focus on taking our resources to them.”

Our brightest minds can be counted upon to find innovative solutions to problems affecting health, economies, business continuity, logistics, education, and more. There are two reasons to innovate, says Nuckolls. “You want to, or you’re forced to do it. Lots of companies now are in the 'forced to' box after COVID-19 hit the country. The good news is, by embracing innovation head-on, what some people thought was impossible to improbable to accomplish, they’re now doing. That opens eyes, to think now that the ‘next impossible' is now possible,” he says.

America’s new COVID-19 environment (with social distancing and the like) “may push us to bring even more innovation to where people live,” says Justice. “Maybe a company doesn’t have to be in an innovation district to do innovation or be an innovator. Maybe you can do it where you live. We’ve learned how we can be connected, but not in the same physical location, and still get work done,” he says. This certainly doesn’t decrease the importance for major innovation centers to be housed in tech communities. Justice notes, “But vertical connections now allow us to ‘spread the wealth’ a bit and be more geographically diverse.” Both models can and do work together synergistically.

Pandemic Births New Innovation Center for Global Solutions
Almost all innovation centers today exist to improve operations for public/private entities and improve operations. That’s why one new entity — Mass General Brigham Center for COVID Innovation in Massachusetts (MGBCCI) — is so unique. It exists to scale products that can save the lives of millions of Americans and global citizens, who are impacted by COVID-19.

MGBCCI is a joint research, engineering, and development effort between Mass General Hospital (MGH) and Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH). It was established in March to help coordinate, facilitate, and rapidly develop innovations for the most pressing COVID-19 issues affecting patients, frontline healthcare workers, and the wider community. They came together to promote collaboration after recognizing a coordinated effort was needed to manage all the different solutions being investigated, explains center co-leader Dr. David Walt, medical diagnostics researcher at Brigham and the Wyss Institute.

MGBCCI has four research areas. The first two launched were the devices and diagnostics units; the data and therapeutics units soon will begin operations. Within each center program area, hospital leaders oversee hundreds of scientists, engineers, and clinicians from BWH, MGH, the Brigham Research Institute, the Wyss Institute, plus other academic institutions and life sciences and biotech companies.

Due to focused help and support from so many leading healthcare partners, working groups are expected to have products ready for mass production/deployment “in the upcoming weeks,” predicts co-leader Dr. Guillermo Tearney, M.D., Ph.D, an investigator in Mass General’s Wellman Center for Photomedicine.

Already one group discovered a hydrogen peroxide vapor method to decontaminate N95 masks for reuse. Ultraviolet light is being researched for mask sterilization, too. Another group identified new promising designs for N95 respirator masks and face shields, while a ventilator group came up with 3D-printed prototypes for those respiratory machines. Other investigators are designing a new protective plexiglass booth for patient screenings, a new patient isolation hood to cut down virus exposure to healthcare providers, promising COVID-19 therapeutic agents or vaccines, a diagnostic test for home use, and tests that can rule out COVID-19 more quickly than most now used.

COIVD-19 may be around for a few years, or forever; we just don’t know. No matter the timeline, it’s apparent our brightest minds can be counted upon to find innovative solutions to problems affecting health, economies, business continuity, logistics, education, and more.

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